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William Dougherty

The American composer William Dougherty (1988) writes music that asks for different levels of listening. His work often exists of “continuous, slowly evolving textures” that encourage the listener to consider what he calls the ‘inner life’ of sound. “Music has the power to open people’s minds, to encourage self-reflection, to consider things outside of themselves and to offer up new experiences, new ways of listening and thinking about the world.”

Dougherty started playing music at an early age: “There was a baby grand in our family’s living room in Philadelphia. It was my spaceship and would double as a fort. I started actually playing when I was probably two or so and I began taking lessons when I was five.” Much later in high school Dougherty became consumed by his music theory classes, especially upon discovering the weight of music’s underlying structures: “What always fascinated me was that there are ‘rules’ to music. I’ve been hearing and feeling these emotions listening to music, and suddenly there was a structure. That was such a beautiful concept. If you play a fully diminished chord, my music theory teacher would say, it sounds like the lady on the tracks in a black and white movie about to be run over by a train. It’s full of tension and there’s a reason for that acoustically. The structure under the music and within the sounds themselves is moving my emotions. It’s making me feel. Suddenly I could create the things that moved me. That got me going and it still does.”

This is a memory that resonates with Dougherty’s musical preferences: “during my graduate studies I discovered the works of Gérard Grisey, Horațiu Rădulescu and Giacinto Scelsi. This music blew my mind when I first heard it. It’s more about texture and color. I wanted to get out of the tradition that demands of the listener a really comprehensive musical education to understand what’s going on. You don’t need to know that a melody is inverted to feel the weight of the sound. I want to encourage a sensuous experience in my music.”

From there it is not a big step to American composers like Pauline Oliveros and Alvin Lucier. They share a similar musical space with Dougherty’s music, one full of slowly evolving static textures: “in their music you have to listen into the sound. It’s about a different mind space. The change is happening at a micro level. You need to listen to other parameters within the sound in order to find that change. These textures are really static and slowly moving. If you look at it in a traditional way and you zoom out, you could say that nothing happens in this piece. It’s literally a glissando up for ten minutes. On a surface that’s true. But the changes are on the micro level: the beating patterns that happen when certain pitches pass other pitches or combination tones created by different tones played at the same time.”

Dougherty is playing with this microscopic listening in Three Formants (2014) for five trombones and a big resonant space. Yet, he gives a different take on the global form: “I sometimes want to change the level of listening, to encourage people to listen to the macrostructure as well. If you make a quick change I find that you are suddenly listening to the larger form of the piece. In Three Formants there are these small sections of sounds. Near the end the trombones play nearly two minutes of ear-splittingly loud split tones, a buzzing sound with the quality of two tones, almost like an electric guitar. There you go from macro to micro.”

the new normal (2016) shows a different side of Dougherty. While he doesn’t regard himself a political composer, this composition engages actively with social issues: “I wrote this piece in the summer of 2016. It was this building moment; Trump was winning, Brexit just happened, all these rightwing parties throughout Europe were rising because of the influx of immigrants from Syria. Philando Castille, this young black guy was driving in Minnesota, got pulled over and was shot on Facebook Live by a police officer. I thought, I could write another piece that offers a different world of sound that encourages people to listen differently and be self-reflective, or I could say something more direct that engaged more concretely with these issues. How am I supposed to write another piece of esoteric sound when this is going on?”

However, there are more layers to the piece. In its political directness the new normal is truly a composition of its time. Not only because of the message Dougherty evokes, above all because of the broad spectrum of references and musical quotes he uses. There’s the serenity of Renaissance music paired next to the violent music of the Japanese noise artist Merzbow, and samples of Black prisoners singing Old Alabama while working on railroad tracks that pass through Dougherty’s sound world. In a sense the piece can be perceived as a codex of the twenty-first century listening experience, where one switches as easily between all those very different kinds of music without judging them differently. Maybe that is that strongest statement of this piece: appreciating difference and treating and accepting it alike.